For the second-consecutive season, the Cincinnati Bengals find themselves in the division basement, but there are reasons to feel optimistic about the direction of the franchise.
With several impact players on injured reserve, the Bengals finished the regular season with two notable wins against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans. Multiple Bengals coaches and players stated that the team’s objective was to end the season on a high note and gain some positive momentum heading into the offseason. The rebuilding Bengals have accomplished their goal by earning two signature wins to close out the year.
Now it’s critical for the Bengals to ride their momentum and attack the offseason. The Bengals had an "out of character" offseason leading up to the 2020 season. Cincinnati needs another aggressive offseason this year because they have to play catchup. The Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns have created some separation from the Bengals. Cincinnati finished the year as the only team in the AFC North below .500.
What happens now for the Bengals? The Enquirer explores.
The Bengals finished the 2020 season with 11 players on injured reserve, including franchise cornerstone players such as quarterback Joe Burrow (knee), running back Joe Mixon (foot), left tackle Jonah Williams (knee), cornerback Trae Waynes (pectoral) and defensive tackle D.J. Reader (quadriceps).
Burrow is rehabilitating his surgically repaired left knee in Los Angeles. He is expected to return at some point in the 2021 season. The Bengals are going to be extremely cautious with the 2020 No. 1 overall pick. Mixon, Williams, Waynes and Reader should be full-go by the spring.
The health of Burrow, Mixon, Williams, Waynes and Reader is the team’s top priority this offseason. The Bengals believe they are the foundation to their rebuild.
Retain top talent
Director of player personnel Duke Tobin and the Bengals have some tough roster decisions to make.
Sources informed The Enquirer that the Bengals and defensive stalwart DT Geno Atkins could mutually decide to part ways this offseason. The Bengals would save $9.6 million on their salary cap if they release Atkins.
Wide receiver A.J. Green and the Bengals could have an amicable breakup, too. Green, who the Bengals franchise tagged last offseason, had a down year this season coming off of an ankle injury. He might look to jumpstart the latter portion of his career elsewhere.
The Bengals also must decide if they want to re-sign key contributors such as cornerback William Jackson III, defensive end Carl Lawson, slot corner Mackensie Alexander, special teams maven Brandon Wilson, linebacker Josh Bynes, punter Kevin Huber and kicker Randy Bullock. All of them are entering free agency.
As a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, Over the Cap estimates the 2021 salary cap will be $176 million, a decrease of $22.2 million from last season. The Enquirer doesn’t anticipate the Bengals being as active as they were last offseason. Instead, the Bengals will put more of an emphasis on retaining talent.
Free safety Jessie Bates is heading into the final year of his contract. The Bengals definitely want to keep him around in the defensive backfield.
The Bengals are projected to have around $43 million in available cap space this offseason, according to Over the Cap. Cincinnati will definitely look for talent externally. The biggest areas of need are offensive and defensive line.
It’s plausible that Joe Burrow won’t be available to start the 2021 regular season. The Bengals need a veteran backup quarterback who can hold down the fort while Burrow is sidelined.
Brandon Allen performed like one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league in Houston. He had career-highs in passer rating, competition percentage and passing yards. The Bengals might re-sign Allen to be the team’s top backup QB or the club could consider signing a more proven signal-caller. Quarterbacks such as Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tyrod Taylor and Jacoby Brissett are entering free agency this offseason and are viable options.
2021 NFL Draft
Cincinnati won’t have the No. 1 overall pick this year, but they still have prime draft real estate. The Bengals own the No. 5 pick in this year's NFL draft. Expect the Bengals to address their offensive line and defensive line early in the upcoming draft.
The Bengals a have sub-mediocre offensive line. Pass blocking and run blocking both need to be upgraded. Burrow was sacked 32 times before he blew out his knee, more than any other rookie QB this season. He was on pace to be sacked more than any other quarterback this year prior to his season-ending injury. The Washington Football Team engulfed the Bengals’ O-line on the fateful play Burrow suffered a season-ending knee injury.
On the defensive side of the football, the Bengals struggled to rush the passer. Defensive end Carl Lawson was the team’s only consistent pass rusher. He led the team in pressures, QB hits and sacks.
The Bengals defense finished at the bottom of the league in sacks and quarterback pressures. Cincinnati needs more disruptive defensive linemen.
First full offseason for Zac Taylor
Zac Taylor was officially hired by the Bengals after Super Bowl LIII and he didn’t fill out his staff until well into the 2019 offseason. Then, the coronavirus pandemic severely impacted the 2020 offseason – no OTAs or minicamp and training camp was modified. In 2021, the country is still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic but Taylor has somewhat of a normal offseason to fully assess his staff and talk to the Bengals front office about what he envisions moving forward.
Sources told The Enquirer, that changes are imminent on the Bengals coaching staff. The Bengals can’t rest on their laurels if they want to get out of the AFC North basement.